In an effort to address the serious overcrowding in prisons in the United States, the federal government is ratcheting down a bit its War on Drugs. Recently US attorney General Eric Holder announced new sentencing directives for low-level drug offenders charged with crimes that aren’t gang-related or violent. At the same time, the government has embarked on an unprecedented campaign to criminally prosecute undocumented immigrants crossing the border. As a result there is a new wave of non-violent offenders flooding the nation’s prisons.
Judith Greene, director of the nonprofit Justice Strategies, said that, “”This is the crime du jour.” “It’s the drug war all over again. It’s what’s driving the market in federal prisons.”
The USA has the highest prison population in the world, both in sheer numbers and in percentage of the population. With only 5% of the world’s population, the US has 25% of the world’s prisoners, with a total of 2.3 million people behind bars. Approximately 743 persons of every 100,000 in the United States are incarcerated. This compares with 209 per 100,000 in Mexico and 114 in Canada.
Richard Nixon declared a “War on Drugs” in 1969. Harsh mandatory minimum sentences became the rage during the 1980’s, largely in response to the appearance of crack cocaine. Drug crimes contributed to an explosion in the size of the federal prison system. The population of federal prisons grew nearly tenfold in three decades, from about 25,000 in 1980 to nearly 219,000 in 2012.
By 1998, up to 40% of new inmates in the federal prison system were locked up for drug offenses, according to a January report by the Congressional Research Service. The Bureau of Prisons budget grew from $300 million in 1980 to more than $6 billion in 2012.
If it was the War on Drugs that prompted the enormous growth in the prison population, today it is the War on Immigrants that is fueling a new surge in both prison population and the growth of the prison industry itself. It is immigrants who represent the fastest growing segment of the federal prison population. More than 60,000 people have been convicted of immigration crimes this year alone, mostly for the offenses of illegal entry or illegal re-entry. Federal data shows that 60% of all federal criminal convictions this year have been for immig ration related crimes.
It is the private prisons that are particularly benefiting from the incarceration of immigrants. Over the last decade, revenue from the federal prison system has more than tripled for the GEO Group and nearly doubled for Corrections Corp. of America — the two companies that dominate the private prison industry. Last year, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) derived 30 percent of its revenue from federal contracts with the U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Prisons, a total of $546 million, according to company financial statements. The GEO Group received more than 25 percent of its revenue from those two agencies last year, a total of $384 million.
According to a report released last year by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 80 percent of immigration defendants convicted in federal court in 2010 received a prison sentence. (The median term was 15 months.)
Provisions in immigration legislation passed by the Senate in June, and more stringent measures being considered by the House, would further increase arrests and prosecutions of those crossing the border. A Congressional Budget Office analysis of the Senate immigration legislation estimated that increased funding for enforcement and prosecution of undocumented immigrants in the bill would result in an additional 14,000 inmates per year in the federal prison system, at a cost of $1.6 billion over the next decade.
Advocates for reducing incarceration argue that a true reform of the prison system must also address the criminalization of immigration.
“It’s great that Eric Holder is talking about over-incarceration, but the actions he’s taking are not tackling the full scope of the problem,” said Carl Takei, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. “There’s this whole other population that’s looming in the background, and growing.”
New “get tough on immigrants” policies originated during the Bush administration, through programs such as Operation Streamline. In a radical departure from decades of simply sending the undocumented back to their country of origin, the new policy was to arrest and prosecute those caught crossing the border without papers.
This resulted in dramatic changes in the criminal justice system. Four times as many immigration cases were brought forward last year than ten years ago. Over the past five years, criminal immigration caseloads have surged in federal court districts along the southern borders of Texas and Arizona, leading to increased demand for prisons and detention centers to hold inmates.
In Texas’ southern federal court district this year, nearly 90 of all new prosecutions were for illegal entry and re-entry into the United States. Federal authorities are looking for more room to hold detainees. The U.S. Marshals Service, which runs the jail system for suspects charged with federal crimes, has worked with the border city of McAllen, Texas, for more than a decade, paying the town to hold about 50 federal inmates in a local jail.
But in recent years, the Marshals Service has had trouble keeping up with the burgeoning pool of inmates, said McAllen City Manager Mike Perez.
“They kept on wanting us to house more and more prisoners,” he said. “We just couldn’t do it.”
As a result in July, McAllen city officials asked for proposals from private contractors to build a 1,000-bed detention facility with the possibility of expanding to hold 2,000 inmates. Perez said officials have already met with representatives from Corrections Corp. of America and the GEO Group, along with another private contractor, LCS Corrections.
Those that run the private prisons are very aware of the “gold mine” that are tougher immigration laws. William Andrews, the CEO of the Corrections Corporation of America declared in 2008 that “the demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts…or through decriminalization of immigrants.” A month after the anti-immigrant bill here in Arizona, SB1070, became law, Wayne Callabres, the president of Geo Group held a conference call with investors and explained his company’s aspirations. “Opportunities at the federal level are going to continue apace as a result of what’s happening,” he said, referring to the Arizona law. “Those people coming across the border being caught are going to have to be detained and that to me at least suggests there’s going to be enhanced opportunities for what we do.”
Both companies have spent millions of dollars lobbying the federal government over the past decade, and four of CCA’s senior officials came from the federal Bureau of Prisons. A GEO Group board member, Norman Carlson, was a former Bureau of Prisons director.
Where is this War on Immigrants headed? Much depends on what happens in the next few months, as immigration reform will be considered this fall in the House of Representatives. The Senate has already passed Senate Bill 744, which contains provisions that would continue to criminalize immigrants and send more and more to prison, often after committing only a misdemeanor offense. While we spend billions of dollars building more prisons for the maids and gardeners that come to the United States looking for work, we continue to refuse to look at the real causes of illegal immigration. The economic conditions south of the border where wages for full time jobs are not enough to feed a family are what drive people north, along with the political instability and the violence of the drug cartels and gangs. Desperate people will continue to seek out a better life for themselves and their families. And locking them up and throwing away the key will only make the situation worse for all of us.